Good (paper) lab book house keeping

A few weeks back, I asked the community at large for advice on where to go to set up an online open lab book. The response was fantastic and I have a whole list of places to look to for online support. However, before I jump in to the deep end, and for the benefit of those that are either not scientists – or just quite lazy about lab book keeping – I thought I would take a moment to explain why lab books are important and how you should be using them.

Academic research cartoon

At its core, a lab book is just that – a book in which you record your lab activities. Historically, these are interesting but they are secondary to the discoveries their owners have made, as lab books were used as much or as little as the owner felt like. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci’s note book is impeccably detailed and annotated and full of beautiful drawings and doodles of inventions, whereas Isaac Newton’s is a wall of impenetrable text in hand writing that a drunken spider would be ashamed of. Interestingly, this wasn’t just a difference of Leonardo being artistically talented and using it in his lab notes; there is some evidence that Isaac Newton deliberately complicated his notes with riddles and confusing wording in order to hide the meaning from anyone that he deemed not intellectually worthy of its content. In some ways, this over complication is not far off how scientific publications work today, sadly. However, despite the difference in style, both Isaac and Leonardo used their lab books to record their findings/thoughts and they would later use these notes to present their work as books and periodicals. The notes themselves were personal in nature and not designed for sharing or disseminating their work to others.

As science changed, so did the lab books. Companies running teams of scientists quickly realised that lab books were critical to sharing research between related teams and for retaining knowledge when a scientist leaves to work somewhere else. If all scientist X’s lab notes are written in short hand that only they can understand then that is no use to the company that has just paid him for the research! Outside of the commercial world, this sharing lab notes is vital to ensuing that you retain the fine detailed knowledge of the experiments that is often lost when it is prepared for publication. Good lab book keeping can ensure that new scientists can learn more quickly from those more experienced and not be doomed to repeat the same mistakes (and any experienced scientists should have plenty of mistakes/failed experiments to learn from!).

So to help any aspiring scientist write up a good lab book, I thought it would be useful to list a few top tips for paper based lab books. I have not quite worked out how exactly some of these fit with using an electronic lab book but that is an on-going project and I’ll post a guide for electronic lab books just as soon as I work out the best way of doing it!

  1. Always write in pen, never ever pencil. This is for two reasons, firstly pencil can be altered which will ruin any chance of using your lab book as evidence that you were developing a technology first, secondly you should just write in your lab book and not get too hung up of neatness or getting things wrong. If you make a calculation error that you need to correct – cross it out and put the right value in if required. Having the mistake visible will remind you next time not to make the same error and to double check figures that you have had a problem with in the past.
  2. Don’t remove/white out anything. If you didn’t get it from tip 1. then I feel it needs repeating – ‘don’t remove stuff’. Even errors, cock-ups and experiments that cause unintended fireballs need writing up – just because you got something wrong is no reason not to make a note of it.
  3. Write in chronological order. Okay, this is a bit of a no brainer but I have seen lab books that people have just randomly scrawled in and they quickly become incomprehensible to even the author.
  4. Date everything. You may not need to re-visit some of your work until months or even years later and you will have forgotten when you did a particular experiment. This is particularly important for matching up computer data to a particular experiment.
  5. Write out the aims and materials of an experiment before you start the experiment. This step is a pretty good habit, as thinking through your experiment aim beforehand is a very good way of double checking that you are actually running the right experiment. Writing the materials down in advance is similarly an important way of double checking you are all setup and ready to run. Personally, I also find that once I’ve run the experiment, I am much more interested in running the next one rather than writing up the thing that has just failed…
  6. Use your brain when including data. Ideally all results should go in your lab book but if you are generating GBs of data then this is probably inappropriate. If you can’t put the data in your lab-book then make sure that at the very least, you paste in a summary graph or table.
  7. Maintain an index. This saves sooooo much time later when you are trying to find that experiment you did, you know the one with the beaker and that solution.

There are a few more things you should/shouldn’t do but they vary a lot depending on your field and where you work. From my experience training up a few new scientists the above tips are the ares that people most commonly seem to skip or forget. In the interests of openness, I have included the scanned page of my lab book I posted for “show you lab books day” a while back. I have highlighted the ares where I’ve failed to heed my own advice.

You'll be pleased to hear I gave myself detention for this
You’ll be pleased to hear I gave myself detention for this

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